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Saying Goodbye to Court of Champions

The L.A. City College men's basketball team holds its last practice at the gym built in 1935. Some had hoped to prevent its demolition.

July 05, 2006|Stephen Clark | Times Staff Writer

The championship banners dating to the 1940s were already removed for safekeeping, the glass backboards already torn down. Still, the Los Angeles City College men's basketball team gathered recently for one last practice in the school's Art Deco gym.

Before the fall semester begins, the gym, built in 1935 and home to one of the most successful community college basketball programs in the state, will be demolished to make way for a library.

Sports fans and athletes are saddened by the loss and outraged that a new gym wasn't built first, as was promised years ago by a college president.

Until a new athletic facility is built at the 16,000-student campus in east Hollywood, the men will share the smaller women's gym, which has a standing-room capacity of about 250, compared with more than 600 for the men's gym.

The men's team will have to use a public locker room and shower, and a restroom that contains only one toilet.

"It's making me really sad to see them dismantling this gym," said Athletic Director Mike Miller, who also has coached the Cubs to 13 straight conference championships and two state titles. "This has been the biggest part of my life for 14 years."

Miller would rather see the gym refurbished for what he believes would be a fraction of the nearly $30 million set aside for a new athletic facility. "There's nothing wrong with this gym," he said.

But college district officials say the gym is in violation of building codes and could cost more than $20 million to refurbish.

"It's just an old, tired facility," said Larry Eisenberg, executive director of facilities planning and development for the Los Angeles Community College District.

District officials say construction on a $22-million library, largely being funded with $19 million earmarked by the state, must start soon to avoid losing the money to other projects.

But critics say the library could be built elsewhere on the 40-acre campus.

The controversy stems from a $2.2-billion bond-financed program started in 2003 to renovate the nine schools in the district.

City College received $248 million for numerous campus improvements and six new buildings, including the athletic center.

The facility will include a swimming complex, classrooms, exercise rooms and locker rooms. Work is underway on a new track, as well as softball and soccer fields, expected to be completed next year.

Construction of the athletic facility has been delayed due to soaring costs, school officials say. But critics contend that the officials have mismanaged resources of the campus on Vermont Avenue, between Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose Avenue.

They mostly cite a controversial driving range that takes up about 10% of the campus. The range was built on the last vacant piece of City College land and is run by a private businessman under a renewable 10-year lease that pays the district $120,000 per year.

The district signed the deal several years ago when it was seeking creative ways to raise money.

Critics have called for the termination of the golf lease to develop the site for student sports. But school officials estimate the cost of such an action at more than $10 million. Moreover, they say, that site isn't suitable for many uses.

Still, they acknowledge that the lease isn't perfect.

"In retrospect, sure, everyone would have desired to do something different," Eisenberg said. But he points out that the district has allocated $41 million to City College athletics, more than any other college in the district receives.

City College has been disrupted in recent years by changes in its leadership. In August, Steve Maradian became president, replacing Doris Givens, who was interim president for two years. She had taken over for Mary Spangler, who promised in 2002 to build a new athletic facility before the old gym was destroyed.

Now some are holding Maradian accountable for unkept promises, but he says he's only accountable for a solution. "The promise was made and it was broken," he said. "Now, how do we move forward?"

School officials and project planners are scheduled to meet this month with faculty -- and possibly staff and students -- to determine the design of the athletic facility. In a best-case scenario, the men's basketball team will have to share the women's gym for at least three years.

"It will be a tough sell recruiting," Miller said, adding that there is already a shortage of gyms in Los Angeles. "How can we afford to lose another one?"

Maradian countered that many larger colleges manage with only one gym. "I understand that it's an inconvenience, and I'm sensitive to that," he said. "But it doesn't mean the program has to suffer."

Maradian said that in the long term, the entire community would benefit from an upgraded campus that is now sorely outdated.

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